Today we visit Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air), one of the largest Orthodox monastic complexes in Greece, built from the fourteenth to sixteenth century on gigantic sandstone pillars towering over the northwestern corner of the Thessaly Plain. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain and are still home to small religious communities.
Monasteries in the Clouds
It is one of the most visited historic sites in Greece and we happen to be here during a long holiday weekend. Anticipating crowds, our Tripology Adventures leader Yoav Barashi, has called for an early start and arranged a mid-morning privately-guided tour for us at Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ).
Perched on Platys Lithos (or Broad Rock) over 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the plain, Great Meteoron is the highest as well as the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It is slow going on the recently built road up to the nearby plateau. From the small parking area, the monastery is reached by a footbridge that straddles the chasm and leads us to the base of the 300 steps cut into the rock face.
Just a Basket on a Rope
I recall a friend who had spent a summer roaming around mainland Greece in the mid-1970’s telling me how she had happened onto “a forest of colossal stone pillars topped with medieval monasteries” at the edge of the Thessaly Plain. It was a well kept secret then, with no visible mean of access other than an oversize basket pulled up and down by a basic rope and pulley system to transport the monks when they went down to the village for supplies.
After several days’ wait she was able to make contact with one of them and get a lift up for a visit. That was before James Bond gave Meteora its moment in the limelight by tracking villains to the Holy Trinity monastery for the suspense ending of its 1981 caper “For your eyes only,” and UNESCO anointed the complex a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Much has changed since then. A licensed English speaking local guide leads us on a comprehensive tour of Grand Meteoron. With only three monks remaining in residence, the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.
The original refectory with its elegantly vaulted ceiling now holds the monastery’s rich collection of ancient manuscripts and icons. The ossuary can also be viewed, with its grizzly display of skulls of the earliest residents neatly lined against the back wall. For me the gem of the visit is the katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity).
A Repository of Hellenic Culture
Due to its isolated location, Meteora became an academic and artistic safe heaven during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece. Hellenic culture and traditions were kept alive here, especially at Great Meteoron. The monastery attracted among its early disciples Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king who became a monk here in 1373 and endowed his fortune to the monastery. The Church of the Transfiguration built in 1388 and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with a striking twelve sided dome. They are a fine example of orthodox architecture and a perfect backdrop for the icons adorning the sanctuary.
Painted in the late fifteenth century, the frescoes of the katholikon are in the Macedonian style, depicting the Virgin Enthroned and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially note images of Christ Pantocrator that remind me of the early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia. The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 are in the more rigid style of the Cretan school and recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. It is a rare pleasure to come across ancient frescoes that have been so well protected by their isolated environment that they are still in their original state and in remarkable condition.
We head back to Athens to next morning. The smooth, multi-lane highway with its slick roadside rest stops and souvenir shops is a bit of a culture shock. After a detour for a long seaside lunch of freshly fished seafood at a small resort on the Gulf of Corinth we get back into our vehicles for the last leg back to the Hotel Alexandros. The mood is subdued. I trust I am not the only one to feel a pang of regret to have arrived at the end my Greek Odyssey.
But I am premature in my assumption. Izhar Gamlieli, the Tripology Adventures co-founder who has been in the background all week orchestrating our off-road expedition, has one more treat in store for us. As the starry night falls on Athens we follow our Tripology hosts through the trendy streets of the once gritty Psiri neighborhood to one of its oldest taverns for an epic farewell dinner of the best local specialties, live Rebetika music and laughter.
As the evening wears on, Nikos Manolis, our wonderful lead driver (and a national figure in the Greek rally racing community) who has led us though this unforgettable off-road adventure, finally breaks into the Zebekiko dance we have been begging him to do for us for the past week. Move over Zorba! Before long a couple of other patrons come to watch, respectfully waiting for Nikos to acknowledge them with the traditional tap on the foot before taking part in the dance. And then we, a group of reserved strangers a mere eight days ago and now a band of friends, all join in. And the Zebekiko (which traditionally is danced by men only) turns into a would-be Sirtaki kicking line with much joking and laughter.
After this unique opportunity to encounter the Greece of the Greek people, I have fallen in love with the country and can’t wait for a return visit. As for off-road touring? This experience was so intoxicating that I feel the Tripology Adventures logo should include a warning label. I am already poring through their itineraries for my next destination.
Good to Know
Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 888-975-7080.